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Pope distorts evidence about condoms, claims Lancet

Stephen Bates
Posted: March 27, 2009.

Guardian.co.uk

The medical journal the Lancet has accused Pope Benedict XVI of distorting scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine following his remarks about condom use and HIV.

The attack — which also said that the pope did not know what he was talking about and had put millions of lives at risk — followed his statement last week during a visit to Africa that the use of condoms increased HIV infection rates. This was later amended by the Vatican, which said that condom use merely increased the risk of transmission.

The pope’s remarks, made to journalists on a flight to Cameroon at the start of his visit, overshadowed his trip and provoked condemnation from health and aid agencies, as well as protests from the UN and the governments of Germany, France and Belgium.

Today’s Lancet editorial said the Pope’s statement was “outrageous and wildly inaccurate”.

It added: “By saying that condoms exacerbate the problem of HIV/Aids, the pope has publicly distorted scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine.

“Whether the pope’s error was due to ignorance or a deliberate attempt to manipulate science to support Catholic ideology is unclear ... When any influential person, be it a religious or political leader, makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record. Anything less from Pope Benedict would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates, including many thousands of Catholics who work tirelessly to try and prevent the spread of HIV/Aids worldwide.”

The pope’s latest remarks have led some observers to question his judgment after recent controversies surrounding the Vatican over relations with other religions and the decision to rescind the excommunication of the English bishop Richard Williamson. The decision was made days after it emerged he had made contentious comments about the Holocaust, prompting accusations that he was a Holocaust denier.

Observers believe that the pope, 81, an academic theologian who has spent much of his career inside the Vatican, is reluctant to seek advice and relies on a small coterie around him.

His remarks about condoms amplified the Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to artificial birth control, which has rumbled on and alienated many liberal Catholics over the last 40 years since it was published in an official church document in the 1960s.

The arguments used by church authorities in defending their opposition to condoms have become increasingly convoluted. But medical experts see them as a vital part of the strategy for preventing the spread of HIV, particularly in Africa.

The pope’s argument that condoms do not prevent Aids echoes previous claims made by some senior clergy that the virus can pass through rubber. However, other senior Catholics, including the cardinals of Belgium and Westminster, have suggested that condom use may prevent the greater evil of infecting partners with a deadly disease.

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